Week 9: Foods Fit for Living - the List

This site began with a simple, personal goal: eat well.

Doing so proved more difficult than we thought it would be, requiring knowledge beyond what is readily offered by both the food industry and the US government. A constant negotiation between Washington, DC elected officials and lobbyists seesaws between human and economic health. Food labels - the only tangible outcome of this perpetual tug-of-war, are are only moderately helpful, focusing on calories, fats, sugars, sodium and fiber. While these are important metrics, they are hardly comprehensive. More key nutritional data are missing on labels than is included: that of all 14 vitamins and 16 minerals, as well as detailed information related to the make-up of a food's fatty acids, proteins and carbohydrates. The differences within each category are essential to whether something is good for you, or bad. Furthermore, when we eat out, whether at a pizza joint or a fine restaurant, it's impossible to determine whether our body's needs are being met. Instead, we are forced to rely on instinct and rules of thumb: 'eat some salad', 'skip the cheesecake', 'leave some fries on the plate'...

In establishing FFFL, we had a few fundamental questions in mind: 

  1. What foods are healthiest, and why?
  2. What are the best sources of each nutrient, and in what form?
  3. What do we need to consume in order to meet 100% of the 'recommended daily intake' of all nutrients? Is it even possible to do so in a single day, from real foods? And what would that menu look like? 
  4. Once we have answers, can we create a single chart of the world's healthiest foods with comprehensive nutritional data, as a reference for people?

The answer to the last question is yes - and we've included it here, for you. Comprised of the 81 foods we consider both healthiest and widely available, they run the gamut between single-nutrient dynamos and pan-nutrient superstars. 

You can download a high-resolution version of the chart here. Print it. Study it. Keep it as a reference in your kitchen, with your cookbooks or taped on the inside of a cabinet door. We do. Serving sizes are included both in volume and in weight, to help quantify things that don't measure easily, like greens. To that end, a kitchen scale is a small investment that can help you to develop an instinct for portion size and remove the mystery. Nutrient levels below 7% of daily recommended intake have been omitted, to focus instead on significant contributors to dietary health. Percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet for an 'average' person. Lastly, nutrient levels vary - sometimes dramatically - based on a food's freshness, preparation, and growing methods. We always recommend you buy the freshest food possible, grown in the most natural way available, and eat it in its least altered state. 

What follows is a selective list of foods/groups that everyone should include regularly in their diets. They include just some of the foods from our comprehensive chart, to dive a little deeper into what makes them so good for us. They are powerhouses across a variety of key nutrients; are readily available, most anywhere; and will, together, provide you with the ingredients for long-term dietary health. Beyond these, remember the well-worn adages: eat the rainbow (all colors); vary your intake (for broader nutritional health); process (i.e.: cook/blend) whole foods minimally, while avoiding all things laboratory-made; eat at peak ripeness (local beats transported); and prepare it yourself, to the greatest degree practical (so that you know exactly what you are eating).

Avocados 

Avocados deliver nature's highest dose of monounsaturated fats, which help reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, thus lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke. After avocados, the foods next highest in monounsaturated fats are olives and olive oil, cashews, salmon and almonds.

The fats in avocados (and the other foods listed above) are key to promoting the body's absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. In the case of vitamin A, avocados increase the absorption of carotenoids in low-fat foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach and kale by 200-600%. They also improve the conversion from beta-carotene to vitamin A. Carotenoids (like beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein, to name a few) are key to eye health (the reduction of retina degeneration) and positively influence a wide spectrum of systems, from male reproductive health to liver, prostate, colon, breast and lung health.

Surpassed only by beans and barley, one avocado serves up 40% of your DRI of fiber - 63-82% of which is insoluble, in the California and Florida varieties, respectively. Soluble fiber lowers blood cholesterol and glucose levels by slowing the absorption of sugars. Soluble fiber also helps you feel full longer, reducing your urge to overeat and thereby aiding in weight loss and reducing rates of obesity. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, remains intact through your lower intestine, where it pushes waste, including toxins, out of your system, keeping you 'regular'. 

Beans

Yes - I just lumped all beans together. While there are over 40,000 types of bean, fewer than a dozen make up the overwhelming majority of those broadly cultivated and consumed. Most of these are included on our list: pinto, garbanzo (chickpeas), black, kidney, navy, lima and soy, as well as lentils and green peas. While nutrient densities vary, all beans follow a similar profile with respect to being a significant source of fifteen vitamins and minerals, with occasional standouts in any particular category. 

Beans are the plant world's reigning monarchs in protein content, packing roughly 30-60% of your daily recommended intake (DRI). Queen among queens is the soybean, with nearly 29g (57%) per cup. All beans contain at least 30% of your DRI. If you are vegetarian or simply avoid animal proteins due to (largely well-founded) health concerns, then the bean family, which includes lentils and green peas, are a phenomenal resource.

Folate is a broad group of B-vitamin nutrients, of which folic acid - the only form found in fortified foods - is just one. Women in particular are familiar with the need for adequate folate intake, as it is a key nutrient in female reproductive health, insofar as reducing the risk of neural tube defects in pregnant women. Beyond this well-published benefit, folate is a key contributor to human neurological health, maintenance of a healthy colon, and - when combined with zinc sulfate, has been shown to augment male sperm count by 74%, along with their motility and morphology rates. While folate (from the latin root word for 'leaf') is often associated with dark, leafy greens, beans are the single greatest source of this nutrient, with lentils (90% of DRI) leading the charge, and pinto and garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas) comprising a close second.

Fiber. Yet again, in this category, beans occupy the top nine spots in the world's best source of dietary fiber. From navy beans (76% DRI) to kidney beans (45% DRI), fiber is the digestive system's ally, providing all the benefits to general health that we've already outlined just above.

Cruciferous vegetables

While we covered this category of wonder foods in detail in Week 8's post, any list would be incomplete without them. The group is varied, and includes such seemingly different vegetables as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, turnips, bok choy, and Chinese cabbage, in addition to arugula, horse radish, radish, wasabi, and watercress. Part of their key value as a group is their glucosinates, which offer several benefits, including reduction of lung and colorectal cancer risk, and fortification of the gut's lining - keeping toxins inside of it so that the digestive system can purge them. Beyond glucosinates, crucifers are powerful anti-inflammatories. Chronic inflammation, as we reported in Week 3's post - and which is caused in great part by what we eat - can 'lead to environments that foster genomic lesions and tumor initiation' - i.e.: cancer, as summarized in a highly detailed 2006 entry in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine here. Put in plain English: cancer cells feed on inflamed tissue, while the reverse - a reduction in inflammation - starves the cancer cells of the nutrients that allow for their proliferation in our bodies. 

Individually, the nutrients in crucifers vary far more than they do in the bean family. Let's look at three individual all-stars in brief. These three vegetables are individually among the world's healthiest foods.

Broccoli is the plant world's best manager of corporeal inflammation, oxidative stress (which does damage to cells, pointedly DNA) and toxicity. Together, these three processes are interwoven, with an imbalance of one creating an imbalance or reduced ability to manage the others. Broccoli does two things: it manages the relationship between them, and it contains nutrients that are themselves anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and detoxifying. Although we cut inclusion of nutrients off at 7% DRI on the FFFL list, one cup of broccoli contains at least 5% of twenty-four separate vitamins and minerals, making it one of the most robust in the plant kingdom, including 240% of vitamin K, 135% of vitamin C - far more than an orange! - and nearly half of your folate. In addition, that serving provides 8% of your omega-3s, 21% of your fiber and 7% of your protein, to highlight just a few.

Brussels Sprouts top the list of glucosinate content among crucifers, besting even broccoli in this regard and making them an anti-cancer champion. Like broccoli, they are also great detoxifiers, anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants. From a nutrient standpoint, Brussels sprouts contain twenty-one separate vitamins and minerals. Most of these track closely with those in broccoli. Brussels sprouts have the edge in also providing 10% of your iron, and 11% of your omega-3s. Beyond the percentages of your DRI (daily recommended intake) within each category, the specific make-up of glucosinates and anti-oxidants vary between crucifers, and so you will want to vary your intake and sources.

Arugula (called Rocket in the UK) has a bitterness that the Mediterranean farmers where it originates enjoyed, and which, like herbs, green tea and radishes, stimulates an entirely different digestive process than do other non-bitter foods. Those who advocate nutrient balance suggest we get adequate amounts of foods that contain all four basic tastes (leaving umami aside): sweet, salty, bitter, sour. Each one aids in a feeling of satiety, reducing the urge to overeat. Beyond this, bitter foods like arugula activate taste buds that simultaneously promote enzyme production and bile flow. These processes are key to digestion, which breaks down foods into nutrients the body can then use. Besides arugula's broad nutrient base - fourteen vitamins and minerals - these bitter greens are natural liver detoxifiers.

A last note on arugula (and other dark, leafy greens): beyond measuring vitamin and mineral content, an index of great value exists that analyzes content and density of the root nutrients behind the vitamins and minerals that contain them, since vitamin and mineral names are, frankly, just convenient labels for groups of organic compounds produced and consumed by plants and animals alike. The index is called the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), and measures phyto-chemicals like polyphenols, carotenoids, retinoids, glucosinates and chlorophylls, among others. Arugula scores sixth highest on the ANDI, behind other foods you may have intuitively expected: kale, collard greens, bok choy, spinach and Brussels sprouts. ANDI scores don't replace other measures of nutrition in any way. They do provide information about a growing area of scientific research into the relationship between phyto-chemicals and health. While broad conclusions are highly contested, a large number of researchers are beginning to connect high phyto-chemical content with lowered risks of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancers, diabetes and neuro-degeneration. An interesting resource for more information can be found here.

Spinach

Spinach is, gram per gram, the single most nutrient-dense food in the world. So much so that it almost feels like a 'gimme' to spend time discussing it here. But then again, if everyone knew what we do about nutrition, we wouldn't need sites like this to help connect people with real data from people who don't sell anything or have a vested interest in specific outcomes. So where to begin with this god among plants? Spinach is a good to excellent source of twenty-four distinct vitamins and minerals, with a single serving providing your entire DRI of vitamins A and K, the majority of your manganese and folate, and between one quarter and one third of your magnesium, iron, copper, vitamins B2 and B6, vitamin E, calcium, vitamin C and potassium. Like kale, spinach tops the list of bone health-promoting vitamin K, at nearly 1,000% of your DRI in a single serving. After nuts and beans (and soybeans' derivatives, tofu and tempeh), spinach is among the highest sources of plant-based protein, adding 11% of your DRI. Only green peas, at 15% (!) and oats, at 13%, rank higher. Lastly, spinach plays the same anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and detoxifying role as crucifers, keeping your systems healthy.

(Side note: the common green pea is a powerhouse on its own - an excellent source of fifteen vitamins and minerals, has significant protein, as we saw, and 30% of your daily fiber.)

Marine Foods

Salmon, sardines, scallops and shrimp - all in one alliterative breath. What do two fish, one mollusk and a crustacean have in common? Apart from being sea creatures, which matters from a health standpoint, they are perhaps the healthiest contributors to several essential nutrients that are almost entirely absent from the plant world. These include vitamins B12 and D, choline and selenium. B12 is essential to DNA production, brain and nervous system health. Luckily, it can also be stored for years in the body, unlike all other B vitamins. Vitamin D is key to bone health, increasing calcium in the bloodstream. Choline is central to production of phosphatidylcholine - a key structural building block of cells - keeping them elastic yet impermeable. And in addition to its anti-oxidant protection, selenium is responsible (with iodine) for strong thyroid function, turning T4 hormones into T3. In just 2 months of a low-selenium diet, thyroid function can begin to suffer. 

Thus, the inclusion of animal foods is key to ensuring adequate intake of all four key nutrients and avoiding deficiency and its attendant health risks. Salmon provides the second highest density of B12 (236%), the highest of D (128%), the fourth highest of selenium (78%), and reasonable choline (19%) - leading the list among healthy animal foods for that reason. Sardines top the list of B12 (338%), are second best in D (44%), third highest in selenium (87%) and provide reasonable choline (16%). Scallops provide 102% of B12, excellent choline (30%), and 45% of daily selenium. Shrimp provide excellent B12 (78%), chart-topping choline (36% - followed only by that found in egg yolks), and a selenium content (102%) second only to tuna, which we do not recommend due to high mercury content and overfishing.

Apart from these unique nutrients, all four sea creatures provide excellent protein, at approximately half of the DRI, and critical, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon and Sardines each provide more than half the DRI of omega-3s, while scallops and shrimp each provide 15%. Lastly, all four are extremely low in mercury levels and other toxins (if the salmon you eat is from Alaska, which it should be - either sockeye or coho), making them the safest and most sustainable in the aquatic world.

Nuts and seeds

This is another broad category to lump together, but is done so intentionally here. We typically use both food gropus as garnishes: that is, they don't make up the focal point of a meal or even a single dish, unless you're given to meals of PB+J. Serving amounts, similarly, tend to be quite small: a generous sprinkle over a salad; a handful eaten as a snack... Lastly, it would be difficult to single out one nut or one seed as a standout. The fact is, when it comes to individual nutrients, there is likely a nut or a seed that tops the list out of any food, and therefore you should include a variety of these heart-healthy, protein-dense, good-fat-filled mini-foods as a regular part of your daily diet. Some highlights: Peanuts. No food is higher (88% DRI) in biotin - a B-complex vitamin essential to skin health and blood sugar balance (since biotin promotes insulin production). Almonds are second highest, at 49%. Almonds are the second highest food in vitamin E (40%), after Sunflower seeds (at 82%). Vitamin E is a potent anti-oxidant that protects cells from free radical damage, and protects against heart disease by preventing the body's cholesterol from becoming oxidized. Flaxseeds are the food world's reigning champion (133% DRI) in omega-3 fatty acids, which, as we've seen in Week 3's post, are essential fats that reduce chronic inflammation, bad cholesterol, blood pressure, risk of stroke, heart disease, arrythmia, arthritis and dementia. Hemp seeds are a close second, at 127%, with walnuts following closely, at 113%. You should include all of these as a regular part of your diet. They all provide double the amount of omega-3s found in those cold water, fatty fish that we love so much and discussed above, like Alaskan salmon and Pacific sardines.  Sesame seeds - the kind often found on that decidedly unhealthy bagel we love so much - are the highest food in copper (163% DRI). Cashews follow next, at 98%. Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and cashews each comprise a quarter of your DRI of zinc - the highest of any plant-based food. Zinc is an essential nutrient in promoting good immune function and skin health. For men, zinc also increases both the motility and quantity of sperm. Lastly, oddly, low levels of zinc have been associated with loss of taste and appetite. Protein? One serving of hemp seeds delivers 22% of your DRI - more than any other plant-based food, after beans. Almonds, cashews, walnuts, flax and sunflower seeds each deliver approximately 10% of your protein DRI. If you're a vegetarian, nuts and seeds are important sources of this tissue-building and -repairing nutrient.

Oh - and one more thing.

That perfect food day? The one in which a realistic, easy-to-assemble-and-eat set of foods delivers the hypothetical 100% of all daily nutrients? It's not as hard as you might imagine. We've made one, below, simply to illustrate the point. A high-res download is available here. Our one shortfall? Iodine. But if you eat your salmon wrapped up in nori and rice - a la Japanese - you've just hit a 100% day.

Enjoy!

Week 4: Food Words - Science or Snake Oil?

What's in a name?

Aside from being one of Shakespeare's most famous lines, it's also one of the most vexing questions for a modern eater who is looking beyond the price tag for food that best supports their family's health.

Let's start with eggs. Farm fresh. All Natural. Cage-Free. Free-range. Vegetarian Diet. No antibiotics/hormones. Omega-3 enriched. Organic. Pasture-Raised. All of these terms can be found on egg cartons, alongside friendly fonts, colorful logos, photographs of hens on lawns and even 'personal letters' written by farm owners, folded and inserted into the carton, like a message in a bottle. The underlying message: We're family farmers. You can trust us. 

So which words matter, and which have been devised simply to move product?

The truth is likely murkier than you think, so the first order of business is to help parse words dreamt up in a boardroom from those that are legally regulated. The fact is that in all cases, regulation is minimal. As a result, a large contingent of poultry farmers who practice a holistic, pre-industrial approach to their craft have established their own grass-roots terms to distinguish the trade's highest quality product - to the benefit of health-minded eaters - at least for the time being. More on that shortly.

Let's start with a statistic. According to the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, 95% of all eggs sold in the US are from chickens raised in so-called battery cages that provide 67 square inches of floor space per bird - roughly the size of an iPad. In their lives, these chickens never see sunlight; will never walk or spread their wings; are fed a mixture of cornmeal and animal byproducts (the heads, intestines, gizzards and feet of of other chickens) and live in 'houses' numbering tens of thousands of birds, amid the roar of giant fans whose job is to minimize the overwhelming stench of ammonia and feces. Unlike their cage-free friends, chickens that cannot move do not need to be de-beaked, since they can't reach around to attack one another. Thus, according to Janice Swanson, an animal scientist at Michigan State University, 'only' 5% of egg-laying hens die prematurely in battery cages, versus 11% in cage-free environments.

Let's visit the life of the typical US commercial chicken. Those raised as meat are commonly referred to as broilers, portending their end state. PETA cites a 2006 Consumer Reports study in which an overwhelming majority - 83% - of grocery store broilers tested positive for salmonella, campylobacter or both - which is not surprising, given their living conditions. This is in spite of the fact that each broiler is given ungodly amounts of antibiotics during its short 5-7 week life in an attempt to minimize risk of dying from the diseases caused by their 'living' conditions before reaching optimal slaughter weight. Each 5 1/2 lb. broiler is administered four times the dose that is typically given to a 150 lb. human or a 1,200 lb. steer. The comparison is staggering, and the high percentage of bacteria-infected grocery chickens is yet more troubling. Egg-laying hens don't fare much better. On average, the comparatively longer-lived laying hens spend a year in similar conditions to broilers, unable to move, before being slaughtered and fed to other hens. From a human health standpoint, we needn't worry about males: they neither lay eggs nor become food. Thus the 250 million that are born each year to hens are thrown upon hatching into large grinders called macerators and thus efficiently culled, alongside slow-hatching or defective eggs of either sex.

The conditions listed above, and the bacterial risks passed from chicken to meat or chicken to egg - and from them to us - makes sourcing this food and understanding the different labels they wear all the more pressing. Let's start with eggs.

Farm FreshPaul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society, says "It literally means nothing." Ditto All Natural, which he says is ironic, "because conventional chickens live in the least natural conditions imaginable."

Cage Free and Free Range. The first of these two designations mandates removal of the battery cages and doubles the space available per hen - to that of a large laptop. This gives hens just enough room to stand, move, spread wings and peck at each other, which accounts for the 6% increase in deaths of cage-free hens when measured against caged birds. The conditions within the thousands-strong hen houses are no different from conventional ones: full of disease, ammonia, feces, feathers, dust and dead birds. The term Free Range is, in practice, no different. It is not regulated by the US Government for egg-laying hens, apart from the need to provide them with access to the outdoors. According to Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, the vast majority of hens never go outside, because of the wind tunnel effect at the hen doors caused by the industrial fans we have already discussed.

Eggs from hens fed a Vegetarian Diet are fed corn - often fortified with amino acids. Given that chickens are natural omnivores, getting much of their nutrition from worms and insects in addition to grasses and seeds in the wild, the term is perplexing, and doesn't provide the optimal diet for hen or egg. Omega-3 enriched eggs are from hens whose corn feed generally includes a flaxseed supplement, since flaxseeds are Nature's single best source of these important anti-inflammatory nutrients, or krill oil. This provides dietary advantages to us, since a chicken's feed does influence the nutrient composition of its eggs, the benefits of which we reap when we eat them. However, let's keep in mind that 95% of hens whose eggs carry these labels alone live in the conditions described above. Thus, to our minds, without additional classifications like organic or pasture-raised (see below), it's a small leap to say that we should be concerned about how the rampant disease, ammonia-laden atmosphere, industrial feed and antibiotics affects the eggs that we consume, and in turn our own health, omega-3's or otherwise.

Up to this point, no term we've looked at establishes a healthy living environment for hens, a healthy diet for their eggs, and therefore optimal nutrition for us.

Which brings us to the first term that carries a legal definition - OrganicOrganic is regulated by the USDA and requires hens to receive organic feed - itself free of synthetic pesticides, receive no hormones and receive no antibiotics. This implies - although not legally mandated - that their living conditions that are less prone to rampant bacterial infection that would require antibiotics. In practice, Kastel says, organic hens are subject to similarly crowded densities, since farmers are free to determine their own practices, as long as they comply with these three criteria. Thus, while certainly better from a chemical standpoint, organic poultry farming is a bit of a Wild West, in terms of health, organic is an important term but on its own is no guarantee of a quality product.

Our final term - Pastured (or Pasture-Raised) - comes closest to what we all imagine when we think of eating eggs (or for that matter, hens): chickens exhibiting natural characteristics, in a natural environment and density, eating what they evolved to eat. Nicknamed beyond organicthis is a purely grass-roots term and carries no regulation, though it is endorsed by the American Pastured Poultry Producers' Association (APPPA). The term was championed by 'star' farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms who is heavily featured in Michael Pollan's seminal book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Since then, it has been adopted broadly by other farmers hoping to emulate pre-industrial practices: by rotating crops and livestock across poly-cultured landscapes in a symbiotic relationship of 'eat, clear, fertilize, grow'. A phenomenal resource exists here - courtesy of the Cornucopia Institute, in which egg producers across the country have been rated on a number of practices and given a star - or egg - rating. You can find out exactly what your favorite egg producers are doing at the farm, and find out whose eggs carry the least risk and greatest benefit to your health - to say nothing of humane treatment of the animals.

The bottom line: if you can afford them, seek out and buy pastured eggs. They're tastier than conventional eggs (we've done our own side by side taste tests), their yolks more colorful, and their nutrient and micro-nutrient levels higher. In fact, according to this study, pastured eggs trounce conventional eggs with 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta-carotene. For the cost of a single Starbucks latte, you can eat good eggs for a week. So drink water. Skip the overpriced brew. And eat good eggs. 

No fat, low fat, full fat... raw fat? 

It won't become a new Dr. Seuss book anytime soon, but it's a good starting point to explore these terms from the standpoint of marketing and successful infiltration into the American diet. We've already seen in Week 3 that fats are essential to your health, and that without an adequate intake of both saturated and unsaturated fats we would (or do) suffer from significant health problems.

In 1976, Senator George McGovern called a hearing to 'raise awareness to the links between diet and disease'. Two of the luminaries he summoned - a longevity guru and a Harvard Professor - suggested that lowering intake of dietary fat could reverse heart disease. The latter claimed in their 1977 'McGovern Report' that ever-increasing amounts of Americans were gorging on fat-rich, cholesterol-rich and sugar-rich meals, thereby increasing their waistlines. These observations posted a direct threat to the egg, dairy, sugar and beef associations, which for the first time banded together and rejected the findings, demanding a rewrite. The US Government caved to the pressures, removing the words 'reduced intake' from the report's recommendations. Instead, they advised Americans to buy more food that was lower in fat. Two things resulted: first, the creation of an entirely new market: the low-fat, fat-free and other variants of existing food product that drove sales up; and second, the widespread substitution of fats by the now fat-averse American consumers with carbohydrates, which were lower in calories and still provided us with fuel. Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fatsays, "In retrospect, it's kind of amazing, but this was the thinking at the time."

Food companies began researching ways to remove saturated fats - which are solid at room temperature - from their products. They turned to unsaturated fats from vegetable oils, but these weren't solid and didn't provide the same mouthfeel or taste, so the process of hydrogenation was applied in order to (semi-) solidify them as suitable alternatives for the processing of food product. Thus trans-fats were born. Trans-fats, as we now know, raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower the HDL (good). They're found in baked goods, fried foods, most snack foods, margarine and commercial dough. But since trans-fats still don't adequately substitute the mouthfeel of animal fats on their own, large amounts of sugar and salt are often added to trans-fats foods to augment their taste. The combination of these - and their market saturation in the United States and abroad - is perhaps the single greatest cause of the increase in obesity rates and epidemic chronic illness we face.

The reality of saturated fat is much more nuanced. Often, they are present in animal-based foods that contain other important nutrient sources like vitamins B12 and D, choline, protein and calcium. Thus, the avoidance of saturated fats in non-engineered foods robs your body of important nutrients.

Take milk. For a period of over fifteen years at the dawn of the 20th Century, no less than the co-founder of the Mayo Foundation (the future Mayo Clinic) - Dr. J.R. Crewe, M.D. - regularly prescribed raw milk (AKA unpasteurized) as a cure for a host of conditions, from cancer to weight loss to allergies to kidney disease to many, many more. He noted in a 1929 article how diseases that had no similarity improved rapidly on raw milk. His patients loved it because it worked and obviated the need for drugs and other medical procedures. Eventually, he stopped treating patients with it, because his colleagues were overwhelmingly in favor of 'modernizing' our approach to health. In his own words, "The chief fault of the treatment is that it is too simple... and it does not appeal to the modern medical man."

A word on raw milk. Almost all commercially available milk today is pasteurized to remove risk of harmful bacteria like E. Coli, lysteria and salmonella. Raw milk is illegal to sell across state lines, and each state sets its own rules for intra-state sale, both in retail stores and on farms, listed here. Raw milk is what was being prescribed by Dr. Crewe, from cows that fed on pasture before the invention of pesticides.  According to Dr. Mercola in a great web entry on the subject, several studies show that the consumption of raw full-fat milk may reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, bowel and colon cancer and may help prevent weight gain - a claim that comes up time and again with regard to unsaturated fats, since fats feed metabolic processes and muscle production. He goes on to say that saturated fats are the preferred fuel for your heart, and that different acids contained in full-fat, raw milk lower one's overall cholesterol, are anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-plaque, and prevent some cancers. Lastly, raw milk is high in omega-3 and low in omega-6 fatty acids, helping to restore your body's balance of these essential nutrients. A good resource for finding raw milk is here.

Pasteurization, on the other hand, requires that raw milk heated (161°F) for at least 15 seconds to neutralize its bacteria. Beyond its bacteria, heat 'impairs the biological value of the food, destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamins, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamin B12 and vitamin B6, kills beneficial bacteria, and actually promotes pathogens,' according to Dr. Mercola. In his opinion, there is no reason to consume pasteurized dairy, ever. Beyond destroying many of milk's vitamins and our ability to absorb the few that remain, pasteurization deactivates enzymes that assist in the absorption of calcium in your bones as well as those that help you to digest it (aka tolerance). These enzymes break down above 120°F and are almost fully inactive at 150°F. To wit: lactose intolerance, which affects about 65% of us, may well disappear in those who consume raw dairy products in place of pasteurized ones, according to Dr. Mercola. 

Read this article for a 1938 British piece on the subject - before industrial farming existed.

With all of the foregoing said, there is an equally vociferous lobby on the side of pasteurization that includes no less than the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as popular food sites such as chef Marcus Samuelsson's Food Republic, which aggressively promotes pasteurization in this web article. The chief argument is one of safety from bacterial infection. Like any form of artificial processing, heat treatment kills those bacteria. What we also know is that while some bacteria are harmful, many others are helpful or invaluable, such as lactobacillus and acidophilus, to name just two. These are commonly added to yogurt and kefir, or found naturally in fermented foods like kimchi and pickles, and produce 'good' micro-flora in your gut. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition here, these bacteria 'show promising health benefits for certain gastrointestinal conditions, including lactose intolerance, constipation, diarrheal diseases, colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, heliobacter pylori infection, and allergies.' These bacteria are also completely absent in pasteurized milk, though plentiful in raw milk. Mark McAfee, CEO of Organic Pastures Dairy and internationally recognized expert on raw milk production and safety, has continued to petition the CDC to recognize both raw milk's safety and nutritional superiority, which he and others believe is highly vested in the protection of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations - AKA industrial milk production farms). Raw milk producers often pasture their cows (you know this by the label grass-fed), adopt stricter safety standards than CAFOs and product both healthier animals and milk. The CDC's (and FDA's) chief concerns derive from industrial farming practices, which lead to diseased animals, which may in turn produce contaminated milk. Says McAfee in a 2012 letter to the CDC:

"As a grade A producer of retailed-approved raw milk in California, I find your raw milk page filled with highly erroneous and very misleading information... In California, we have legal retail-approved raw milk in 400 stores consumed by 75,000 consumers each week. This retail legal raw milk is tested and state inspected and far exceeds pasteurized milk product standards without any heat or processing.

It is clean raw milk from a single source dairy. There have been no deaths from raw milk in California in 37 years. Two years ago, I submitted a FOIA request to the CDC to request data on the two deaths that the CDC database claims were from raw milk. The data I received back from the CDC showed that in fact there had been no death from raw milk at all.

The two deaths had been from illegal Mexican bath tub cheese and not raw milk from any place in America. Why does the CDC persist in publishing this erroneous information? ...The last people to die from milk died from pasteurized milk at Whittier farms in 2007, not from raw milk."

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Wherever the truth lies, research, empirical evidence and nutritional chemistry all favor the healthfulness of raw milk, but that milk also carries risks, since as with all raw foods, its 'prime' consumption period is highly limited. In short, it spoils, and must be consumed in an unspoiled state. Raw milk is also extremely hard to find in some states, though easier in others - as it is in Europe, where it is legal across the European Union and even sold in vending machines.

Leaving the debate aside for a moment, let's examine the sub-category of whole vs. low-fat or non-fat, which is unsurprisingly related. All three products are in abundance in the typical American supermarket. Time Magazine published an article this past March that largely echoes an overwhelming number of scientific studies and related articles: that full-fat dairy is in fact better for you than low-fat or lack thereof. A key reason, which should sound familiar by this point: dairy's fatty acids play a [positive] role in hormone regulation and metabolism, which govern how much fat your body stores. Studies have shown that the fewer fats we eat, the more carbohydrates we consume to make up for it. This is consistent with a 50-year trend toward eating more carbohydrates in place of fats (remember Senator McGovern?). When that happens, insulin levels rise. Insulin regulates nutrient partitioning, telling nutrients where to go. Lowering insulin levels allows your body to access fat stores and use them up as energy. 

Our recommendation for dairy: include raw milk/cheese products in your diet if you can find them from a clean, reputable source in lieu of pasteurized, and use them dligently, as you would with other highly perishable foods - like fish. If you cannot or prefer not to 'eat raw', opt for full-fat, organic, grass-fed (pastured) dairy, since low-fat or non-fat anything strips these dietary sources and our bodies of key nutrients.

If there is a consistency to food's story here, it is a simple one: the more that scientists alter a food source - whether an animal's natural habitat (in the case of hens) or its byproduct's chemical make-up (in the case of milk) - the more we are upending that which millions of years of natural selection kept in balance and deemed successful, allowing both consumer and consumed to thrive in a closed loop. In no way does this suggest that farming per se - the practice of creating favorable growing environments to maximize yield - is bad. In harnessing nature, agriculture has broadened the human diet and allowed both our number and our longevity to increase. But when a food is consistently exposed to controlled chemicals, an unnatural habitat and/or compositional manipulation, we are the ones left paying the price for the experiment - an experiment designed to drive business profits, our waistlines and our medical expenses ever upward.

Week 3: The Modern Diet and Disease

Our diet is quite literally killing us.

The vast majority of those of us living in industrialized nations have outsourced our nutritional health to people we will never meet: people whose boardroom decisions carry 'life and death' consequences for us, while their agricultural, factory and laboratory practices - if we could see them with our own eyes just once - would forever change what we choose to eat and how we view our food supply for the better.

As is widely discussed in books, newsrooms and living rooms, our rate of obesity has more than tripled in just half a century - to 36% - and is projected to hit 50% by 2030. Those whose BMI qualifies them as overweight is almost double that amount: 69%. As one would expect, our rate of calorie consumption has also increased, to 2,700 per day - up 20% since 1970 - which is cause for alarm. This is due in large part to the widespread proliferation of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods that leave us less satiated. They often trick our brains' reward centers into craving - and eating - more than we should, thus making us more likely to purchase yet more of the same food-products in order to fill our ever-hungry bellies.

Yet in spite of consumers' dogged focus on counting and reducing calories, I will argue that the number of calories we ingest is not dietary disease's primary cause - not by a long shot. Astoundingly, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), the vast majority of our dietary calories - two thirds of it - comes from just four sources: Dairy (10.6%), Refined Grains (20.4%), Refined Sugars (18.6%), and Refined Oils (17.6%). It is far and beyond what we eat - not how much - that determines overall health and the prevalence of so-called modern illnesses, from cancer to cardiovascular disease to diabetes to hypertension to osteoporosis and beyond. Consider the following statement from AJCN: "In the United States and most Western countries, diet-related chronic diseases represent the single largest cause of morbidity and mortality. These diseases are epidemic in contemporary Westernized populations and typically afflict 50-65% of the adult population, yet they are rare or nonexistent in hunter-gatherers and other less Westernized people."

In other words, it is not human to die of cardiovascular disease and many cancers. It is largely industrial - and results from our food choices.

None of the food categories listed above - not one of them - was available to our pre-agricultural ancestors. That said, we are in no way advocating a return to Paleolithic dietary habits which, beyond being impossible, is inadvisable from the standpoint of health. A great article in Scientific American highlights the fallacies of the Paleo-diet fad here It's incontestable that great gains in human health - and hence longevity - have been made on the back of Agriculture, such as the introduction of high-nutrient foods like whole grains and legumes, both of which must be cultivated; or the increase in yield and reliability of most foods whose presence and volume are otherwise variable. Further, the still-nascent field of nutritional science has begun to help us understand how our choices in food preparation greatly affect a food's value to our bodies. Take tomatoes, for instance. Touted for the presence of the anti-oxidant lycopene, which helps to eliminate free radicals that damage our cells, many people readily include them as part of a so-called healthy, balanced diet. However, we now know that cooking tomatoes increases the content of lycopene significantly - by up to 164% after a half-hour of cooking according to a 2002 study by Cornell University - over its raw state. Moreover, the bio-availability of the lycopene in a tomato - that is, our body's ability to use it - is influenced by the presence of other foods, as is its activity level once it is absorbed into our bloodstream, which increased by 20% in the presence of olive oil, says a 2000 study at the Northern Ireland Centre for Diet and Health. 

What we are advocating is a return to eating whole, high-nutrient foods that have been minimally - or knowledgeably - processed, and eating them in the proportion and combination that are of greatest value to our bodies' overall health. Generally, the more processed a food is, the more stripped it is of its nutrients. Paradoxically, the more a food has been engineered, the less nutritious it often is. Week 7's blog covers this subject in depth, with startling facts about GM corn - the US's biggest crop. A great New York Times article on the subject, called 'Breeding the Nutrition of of of Food', can be found here. Beyond science, the longer it's been since a food was 'living' (i.e: when harvested), the more its nutrient profile declines. Ditto various methods of storage, preparation and consumption. A good blog entry by fellow New Yorker 'Sweet Beet' here offers good rules of thumb. 

In short, the less healthy our diet is, the less our bodies are able to carry out their key functions: feeding our brains, organs and tissue; digesting the good and expelling the bad; and repairing itself so that you live longer, in better health - which is what this site is about to begin with.

So while is wholly unrealistic to expect any of us to pick up a farm implement on a daily basis, let alone a spear or a blow dart, there are others whose business it is to do exactly that in our stead, whose food product supports our health, and which is readily available in every supermarket - or better yet farmer's market - in the United States. Here is just one of countless resources for finding a market near you.

In its research, the AJCN goes on to list 7 characteristics of our ancestral diet, and how our shift to industrial agriculture has thrown every one of them off its evolutionary equilibrium: glycemic load, fatty acid composition, macro-nutrient composition, micro-nutrient density, acid-base balance, sodium-potassium ratio and fiber content. As we outlined in Week 1, the body needs all nutrients listed in our graphic in balance, in order to function optimally. Let's explore one important characteristic - fatty acid composition - in which the 'modern' diet has paved the way for chronic illness to proliferate.

To do so, we need to understand the differences between fats and why they're important. No food topic has been the subject of more ink over the past 30 years than fat, and no nutrient more vilified. An entire, highly profitable sub-market has opened up in which foods are re-engineered or processed to reduce the amount of fat they contain. Low-fat and fat-free are just two monikers you hear regularly. [Week 4's blog entry covers these terms in detail, here] In reality, however, fat is an extremely complex and varied set of nutrients. Some fats do in fact harm us. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils - aka trans-fats - are in overwhelming numbers of highly processed foods in stores and restaurants alike, from cookies and chips to baked goods and french fries. These fats raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides, while lowering levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. A caloric intake containing just 2% trans-fats increases our risk of heart disease by 23%, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Most alarmingly, trans-fats - as well as an imbalance of dietary fatty acid composition (more on that below) - create an environment friendly to inflammation, which is at the root of the diseases that claim the most dollars and lives in industrialized nations today: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and many cancers. As is broadly known in the scientific community, chronic inflammation can 'lead to environments that foster genomic lesions and tumor initiation' - i.e.: cancer, as summarized in a highly detailed 2006 entry in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine here. Put in plain English: cancer cells feed on inflamed tissue, while the reverse - a reduction in inflammation - starves the cancer cells of the nutrients that allow for their proliferation in our bodies. A key source of inflammation reduction is... other fats.

To wit: without certain types of fats, we would not just get sick; we would likely die, as did the rats in Burr & Burr's seminal 1929 study, when they were deprived of essential dietary fats - so-called because the body cannot produce these and must find them in the foods we eat. Burr & Burr's subsequent experiments were key to the recognition of both linolenic and linoleic acids as essential fatty acids, outlined here. These unsaturated fats, which are mainly found in plant-based foods and oils, nuts and fatty fish - are absolutely central to the basic health of our cells. Their introduction into our diets has the opposite biological effect of saturated fats: they lower our levels of bad LDL and triglycerides while raising levels of good HDL. A sub-group of these - polyunsaturated fats, comprised of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids -  is used by the body to tremendous and varied benefit: building cell membranes; coating nerve endings, promoting blood clotting and the formation of muscular tissue; reducing blood pressure; and reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Moreover, paradoxically and in direct contravention to popular dogma about fats, regular ingestion of unsaturated fats helps the body shed excess (stored) body fat by boosting its basal metabolic rate. In short, eating foods high in unsaturated fats helps you lose weight.

Of special interest to us, however, is the fact that Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are Nature's best form of inflammation control.

With regard to inflammation, it's worth revisiting our Paleolithic ancestors. While all unsaturated fats are important for maintaining good health, the hormones derived from the two types of polyunsaturated fats - the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids - provoke opposite responses in the body. Those from omega-6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation (an important component of the immune response), blood clotting, and cell proliferation, according to health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions

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In pre-agricultural societies, it is widely accepted that the levels of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods in our diets were roughly in balance - a 1:1 ratio. In modern Western diets, however, overwhelmingly comprised of dairy, refined sugars, refined grains and refined oils - all inflammatory foods - that ratio has become disproportionate in favor of omega-6s. The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health lists that ratio as between 15:1 and 16.7:1. The result, in brief: a rampant increase in incidents of cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases... the hallmarks of an industrialized diet, and the very things that are killing scores of Americans each year.

It's worth sharing the statistics: 64 million Americans suffer from cardiovascular disease; 50 million are hypertensive; 11 million have type 2 diabetes; and 37 million have an at-risk cholesterol level of over 240 mg/dL. Finally, an estimated 1/3 of all cancer deaths are due to nutritional factors, including obesity.

So what can you do - right now - to begin reducing your intake of inflammatory, nutrient-poor, disease-promoting foods? The answers - in great detail - will begin to fill this website over the next 49 weeks. In the meantime, a few rules of thumb:

  1. Stop eating snack foods, immediately. Instead, snack on nuts - especially walnuts, one of nature's greatest sources of omega-3s - as well as seeds, crunchy vegetables and fruit.
  2. Stop drinking soda. Drink water, copiously. And green or herbal tea. For that matter, replace juice with blended smoothies. Stripped of its fiber, juice is a sugar bomb and sends the liver into overdrive producing fat cells to store the oversupply of sugars.
  3. Replace squishy breads in plastic bags with breads made with sprouted (whole/live) grains and legumes whose germ is intact. Stripped of key nutrients, refined flour breads are quickly converted into glucose once digested, raising risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Sprouted/whole grains have the opposite effect.
  4. Eat varied salads, often, that include wild grains and small servings of protein, and skip nutrient-poor, high-calorie dressings. Opt for a balsamic vinaigrette, which is low in calories and contains monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil, or skip the mustard and vinegar and substitute fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
  5. Avoid low-fat, lite or non-fat anything. Period. We've demonstrated the need for fats. Avoid the bad ones; embrace the good ones. Don't be fooled by jargon; it's there to get you to spend money.
  6. Unless you live in a state that allows access to raw milk products, cut back on the dairy products. They are good sources of calcium but are high in saturated fat, and pasteurization likely increases the risk of some cancers, like ovarian and prostate. Further, stripped of its digestive enzymes due to pasteurization's high heat, some 65% of us exhibit degrees of lactose intolerance. Dark, leafy greens like spinach can provide almost as much of calcium as yogurt; tofu almost 2.5 times that amount.
  7. Stock your pantry and refrigerator with easy-to-store-and-snack omega-3 rich foods, like walnuts and canned sardines. Consume cold-water, fatty fish like Pacific Sardines, Atlantic Mackerel and Alaskan Salmon. Either Sockeye or Coho, wild Alaskan salmon's populations are extremely well-managed, contain the species' lowest levels of mercury and other contaminants; is abundant thus easy to find; and is extremely high in omega-3s.
  8. To wit: cook more. Take the time. Restaurants are businesses and there to make money, or they go under. Unless you spend a fortune on fine dining at health-focused, farm-to-table establishments, your kitchen is your friend, and allows you to control what goes into your belly.
  9. Proportion size: reduce it. A serving of meat is 3-4 ounces - the size of a deck of playing cards - whereas the smallest restaurant steaks are typically 8 oz.
  10. Skip the seconds. To feel satiated longer, opt for foods with a low glycemic index, like oatmeal, lentils, fresh fruit, barley, and sweet potatoes, to name a few. 
  11. Eating vegetables means more than salad. Pasta recipes offer countless source of vegetable intake; likewise, roasting vegetables in the oven, drizzled in olive oil and exotic spices are both simple and delicious. Whomever says vegetables are boring is either lacking in imagination or simply lacking in recipes. Books like 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes prove the point.
  12. Skip the supplements. Get your nutrients from their source - not a drug company. Fish oil? Eat salmon. D3? Eat pastured eggs or get 20 minutes of sunlight. Vitamin C? Eat an orange, or squeeze a lemon into some water for a curative, thirst-quenching drink.
  13. Take everything in moderation, including moderation. The occasional (which means occasional) departure from the straight-and-narrow may not be good for you, but it's good for your sanity, is practical when you're dining out, and underscores the point that eating healthfully is about small choices over the long term - not one meal or immediate results. Make good choices, often, and your body and loved ones will be thankful.

For more rules of thumb, visit our Food Rules web tab here.